World Cup: No longer disjointed, Dutch bank on harmony against Messi’s Argentina

Netherlands' goalkeeper Andries Noppert "filming" teammates Nathan Ake and Virgil van Dijk during a training session on Dec 4. PHOTO: AFP

DOHA – Louis van Gaal leaned over, put his arm around Denzel Dumfries’ shoulder and planted a smooch on his defender’s temple.

The eccentric, at times abrasive, Netherlands coach had been asked how proud he was of Dumfries after the right wing-back’s Man-of-the-Match showing in their World Cup last-16 win over the United States last Sunday.

“Denzel knows very well,” said a beaming van Gaal. “Yesterday or the day before, I gave him a big, fat kiss and I’m going to give him another one now. Everybody can see. There you go.”

Love, it seems, is in the air in the Oranje camp at the World Cup in Qatar.

It is a welcome change for a team infamous for their tendency to self-destruct at major tournaments, allowing egos and in-fighting to overshadow their talent.

Later that night, a video of the squad with all smiles – 71-year-old van Gaal included – gyrating into the team hotel after the US win went viral.

At the team’s training base at the Qatar University, on the outskirts of northern Doha, The Straits Times asked Oranje defenders about the harmony within the squad.

“The vibe,” said Jurrien Timber, “is very good. We have a lot of fun times with the team and communication with the trainers and staff is very good. The feeling is great.”

Added Nathan Ake: “We know when to relax and get our heads a little bit out of the football but we know when to focus as well, and that time is coming very soon.”

Ajax ace Timber and Manchester City man Ake know they have to be on their toes against an Argentina attack led by the peerless Lionel Messi.

They were certainly given plenty of reminders during the 15-minute media session on Wednesday, where Messi’s name was brought up five times.

But they are confident in their strength as a collective, said Ake, who later joined his squad in a training session where the players were observed in relaxed mood, joshing around during the warm-up and sharing jokes.

“Maybe we don’t have the best individual players in the world,” said Ake, “but, as a team, we are very strong and I think we have to use that (against Argentina).”

Van Gaal, who is undefeated in 19 matches since he began his third stint in charge as national coach in August 2021, also preached the value of unity.

“I believe in the team over the individual player,” he told Fifa+. “(But) it is not the case that we have already achieved top form as a team. We can be much better, that’s what I’ve always said.”

Indeed, the coach had revealed that he was “critical” of his team at half-time in their match against the US, taking particular issue with their “unacceptable” inability to keep the ball, which he felt improved after the break.

The Dutch, though, have already strung together wins over three reigning continental champions in Qatar – beating the hosts (Asian champions), Senegal (African champions) and the US (North, Central American and Caribbean champions). Argentina, the reigning South American champions, could be the fourth.

“With our tactical plan, we can surprise the opponent,” said van Gaal. “That has been proven several times.

“These guys haven’t lost under my leadership. I said we can become world champions with this squad. I didn’t say we are going to be world champions, but we can be.”

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